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April 2016

The Birth of the State

The state was born of violence and oppression. This should color our understanding of its present nature.

Questions about the origin of the state are worth exploring insofar as both they and their potential answers may further illuminate contemporary political institutions. Should we get closer to understanding the state as a historical fact, rather than as merely an abstraction of political philosophy, we can better avoid some of the lazy and fallacious thinking about the state. For example, in the dialogue about the state, popular and academic, we find a tendency to abstract it away from its historical record and its component parts—that is to say, actual human beings. Thinking about how the state emerged can furthermore help explain libertarian attitudes about it, many of which may seem counterintuitive to the non-libertarian. For example, what makes the state different? And why do libertarians favor a political order with either a minimal, “night-watchman” state or no state whatever? While we can successfully answer such questions with appeals to pure political philosophy, economic reasoning, and other disciplines, thinking about how exactly we got the state will tend to vindicate libertarian worries about political authority.

Today, most people, even (perhaps especially) politicians and public policy experts, fail to acknowledge a distinction between the state and civil society; one frequently hears formulations of civil and political life that explicitly rely on conflating the two, as in the remarkable oft-repeated phrase that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Under these notions, the state is never culpable, for it is only when its agents act commendably that they are the state. In their misdeeds, they are conveniently no longer agents of the state, but rogues acting outside the scope of their authority, arrogating to themselves powers that polite society would rather not associate with government. Thus the idea of the state itself is never the subject of serious scrutiny; when its proxies commit atrocities, those are attributed to the individuals themselves, the evil act tokens treated as the proximate result of moral failings unique to the particular individuals, or sometimes regimes, in question. Rather than seeing Soviet Communism or Nazism as symptomatic or suggestive of the problems with political power generally, we want to treat them as sui generis, somehow unrelated to or unrepresentative of the state as a concept. Attempts to puzzle out the set of circumstances that begot the state can yield crucial insights and clarity about what’s going wrong in politics and why.

When Enlightenment philosophers considered the question of primitive state formation, they were concerned much less with historical fact than with telling hypothetical stories capable of explaining how the state might be justified as a moral and social matter. The truth of the stories was less important than their ability to account for the state, to show its necessity and legitimize its role in civil society. David Hume, for example, is explicitly dismissive of such questions, though his very objections reveal his opinions about how governments in Britain got their start.1 Assuming the birth of the state to be characterized by cruel barbarism, “so much guided by caprice,” Hume reflects happily on the fact that the whole story is “buried in silence and oblivion.”

Around the turn of the century, several scholars in the fields of political science and sociology were seeking a method of examining and understanding the state that would rely less on the hypothetical philosophical abstractions of, for example, the social contract theorists. Keen to apply the tools of the hard sciences, so called, these scholars wanted a more empirical explanation of political power and its institutions, one that they could properly consider history, not theory. In a 1908 speech to the American Political Science Association, the British historian and legal scholar James Bryce, then president of the Association and British Ambassador to the U.S., encapsulated this more empirical, observational approach: “The Fact is the first thing.” Bryce asked, “what can be more windy and empty, more dry and frigid and barren than such lucubrations upon sovereignty as we find in John Austin2 and some still more recent writers?”3 For Bryce and others like him, political science needed to be brought back down to earth, refocused on the concrete rather than “the metaphysical and speculative.” Notably, we find a similar approach, marked by the pivot away from romantic conceptions of political power, in the work of the eminent historian Charles Beard and the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, famous for his 1908 work, The State. Both Beard and Oppenheimer maintained that the state is the direct product of war and conquest, echoing the words of Herbert Spencer: “it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression.” Devoted to investigating the state as it exists in practice, rather than in theory only, scholars like Beard and Oppenheimer endeavored to look behind the monuments to government power and glimpse the deeper nature of that power.

Contemporary anthropologists, too, think about these questions rather differently from philosophers, with the goal of understanding human societies, without passing judgment on their normative ideas. Anthropologists, then, are unlikely to pay much mind to the political or philosophical implications of their research, much less to advance a particular ideological orientation; this, of course, only enhances the credibility of their testimony. They get to look at the state through a different lens and from a different angle, unencumbered by the baggage of social philosophy. Anthropologist Robert L. Carneiro’s “A Theory of the Origin of the State” considers the genesis of government from this perspective. As Carneiro explains in his paper, classical thinkers such as Aristotle simply “tended to think of the state as ‘natural,’” having always existed in the nature of things. In surveying some of the theories that attempt to place the beginnings of the state on scientific footing, Carneiro argues that “the origin of the state was neither mysterious nor fortuitous,” but rather a result of certain identifiable conditions precedent, among these, concentrated population centers in and around preferred areas of arable land. This connection between more agricultural, settled cultures and lifestyles and susceptibility to state dominance is developed further in the work of James C. Scott, particularly in his book The Art of Not Being Governed. Exploring the implications of the transition from more nomadic forms of agriculture to “sedentary grain growing” in Southeast Asia, Scott notes that “fiscal imperatives” often motivated government attempts “eradicate shifting cultivation.” Itinerant peoples were more difficult to tax, monitor, and otherwise control, their practices naturally ill-suited to the centralizing processes of “legibility.”

Already we can see the difference between philosophical analyses of government and anthropological ones: “Modern anthropologists,” writes American anthropologist Elman R. Service, “know something that neither Plato nor Aristotle, Hobbes nor Rousseau understood”—not only that the facile conflation of government “with society itself” is historically inaccurate, but that “over 99 percent of past human history” was spent in societies without government as we know it, without the state.4 The state seems to be quite new indeed. Still, whether the fact of its novelty and youth ought to count against the state is far from clear. As it happens, Service, who adopted an integrationist view of the state’s origin, argues that the subjects of the first states were eager to accept the security and efficiency benefits of the state’s “managerial bureaucracies.”5 Many of the theories that see the state as arising naturally and peacefully acknowledge the magnitude of agriculture’s ascendency, its central place in the development of the first states. These theories emphasize the roles of expediency and rational self-interest in the birth and evolution of the state. As improved irrigation and agricultural techniques made food more abundant and readily accessible, ever less manpower was necessary for the processes of producing sustenance; a growing percentage of the population could remove themselves from those processes and dedicate their time to one of several other occupations, thus dividing and specializing the labor force. Here, then, the state is presented as a kind of spontaneous order, arising inevitably as a matter of practical necessity. Smaller, autonomous organizations banded together quite without coercion, conscious of the benefits of cooperation and concerned with broadening their base of trading partners and scaling productive activities.

Dividing theories of the state along these lines—that is, into voluntaristic and coercive theories—can result in strange bedfellows. Apropos of the origin of the state, there is a coincidence of belief, perhaps surprising, between libertarians and Marxists. Both groups tend to see the state as originating in class rule, indeed, as the crystallization or organization of one group’s economic enslavement of another. “Every state,” writes the Marxist Ernest Mandel, “is the organized political expression, the instrument, of the decisive class in the economy.” And while he cavils at the Marxist notion of class, preferring to use the word caste, Murray Rothbard describes the origins of the state in remarkably similar terms, stating that it is “the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory,” ensuing from “conquest and exploitation” as a “conquering tribe” settles upon the vanquished to “exact[] a steady annual tribute.” Here, again, oversimplified, overused, and superficial categories such as “liberal” and “conservative” quickly disintegrate, their uses as explanatory tools unable to stand up to such a broad range of complex ideas. As is so often the case, what we often wrongly regard as the opposite poles of our confused political spectrum actually share many of the same basic features. This might not surprise us if we considered that the poles are, by definition, more radical positions, characterized by—as the dictionary teaches—their attempt to relate to or proceed from a root (“radical” coming from the the Latin radix, meaning “root”). Positions at the poles, those that have attempted to scrutinize social institutions more deeply, have been more willing to embrace heterodox views on the role that government plays in the larger social fabric.

Knowledge that the state is a relatively recent invention should at least disabuse the notion that it was a foregone conclusion or that it must exist forever onward. The state as we know it is still in its youth. This isn’t to suggest that pre-state human societies were not themselves incarnadine pictures of brutality, only that the state extended the possibilities of violence, codified exploitation, and institutionalized slavery. The theory that the state was born of the worst kinds of savage violence does necessarily mean that the state is undesirable or irredeemable; it may, however, impel us to work toward an unidealized picture of what the state is and what it does. Its features in sharper relief, we may be surprised to learn that the state has remained largely true to form—that it is not a benign social service organization but an institution of violence.


  1. Richard H. Dees, “‘One of the Finest and Most Subtile Inventions’: Hume on Government” in Elizabeth S. Radcliffe, A Companion to Hume (Wiley-Blackwell 2011), 388.
  2. Austin is a legal philosopher associated with both legal positivism generally and the idea that law entails the existence of a commanding sovereign power, from which the law emanates, and an obedient populace.
  3. Brian C. Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (State University of New York Press 1998), 97.
  4. Elman R. Service, Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution (Norton 1975), 5.
  5. Marvin Harris, Review of Ronald Cohen and Elman R. Service’s Origins of the State: The Anthropology of Political Evolution in American Anthropologist, Vol. 82, No. 2.